We Begin at the End by Chris Whitaker
My rating: 5 out of 5 stars
Published: 2nd April 2020 (Bonnier Books UK)
Chris Whitaker is one of those authors whose every release makes me wonder just how much better he can get. He’s only on book 3 and I’m wondering if this time he might have created something unmatchable. Honestly, I’ve been sitting on this review for ages because I can’t seem to write anything that’s not offensively superlative. We Begin at the End is a triumph. Spectacularly plotted, gut-wrenchingly genuine, and memorable in that way that sits heavy on your heart.
One of the most challenging aspects of reviewing this book is how to talk about what it IS without accidentally negatively framing what it isn’t. As a genre, crime fiction gets about as much stick as science fiction and fantasy. It’s somehow considered lesser, like putting together intricate plots, unforgettable characters, and surprising denouements is easy as pie. And if you’re shopping for a copy of this, you’ll most likely find it in the crime fiction section. That’s how the author’s previous books were classed and this story does spiral out from a murder. The tag line on Amazon calls it ‘the most captivating crime read of 2020’. Now, I’m not going to deny that…
…if anything beats this as my favourite crime novel of the year I’ll be stunned.
But maybe that’s because We Begin at the End is nothing like you expect. And as much as I love the genre, this is something altogether different. This is crime fiction in the same way that To Kill a Mockingbird is a courtroom drama. It’s small town America authenticity rendered, a depiction of flawed humanity and messy relationships made all the more striking by the contrast of being written in such beautiful language. It’s hard not be awed by how perfect the blend of literary style and criminal investigation can be when it’s grounded in the baseness of human nature; how a spectacularly crafted sentence can illuminate the flashes of compassion in what seems like overwhelming hardship.
This isn’t crime fiction as you know it, this cuts far too close to the bone for that. It’s the kind of real you can lose yourself in. It’s storytelling that transcends genre.
The book’s greatest strength is in the voice and character of Duchess. This girl. What can I say about this girl? Well, she’s difficult. Challenging in that way fierce people can be. She is all fire, mesmerising and dangerous. Her every choice is determined by the desperate necessity of protecting herself and above all else, her brother. While her actions provide an essential part of the investigative momentum of the plot, it is the author’s exploration of her relationship with Robin that in turn uplifts and crushes the soul. Their precarious lives, their vulnerability, their search for safety in any and all its forms… it’s an emotionally bruising story that holds hope just out of reach.
In comparison, the adults in the book, with their bad decisions and repeated failures, fade into the background. Still effectively rendered, but nowhere near as vibrant. They are the ones that hold the answers to all the puzzles, but you doubt whether they have either the wherewithal or the will to find them. Of course, this is all part of the author’s plan. It means that everything is held close right until the final pages, a sublime finale for a narrative that hides as much as it reveals.
Whichever direction Chris Whitaker decides to got after this, know that I’ll read anything he writes. Whether it’s the physiological thrill of Tall Oaks, the intensely atmospheric All the Wicked Girls, or this masterpiece, there’s no doubt that his books represent unmissable fiction. We Begin At the End deserves to be on everyone’s reading list this year.
You can PREORDER this from Book Depository (free shipping)
…or, you’re an ebook fan, can take advantage of the incredible price of £4.07 on Kindle UK
ARC via Netgalley